The Complex Social Structure of the Mongol Empire

Posted by Julian Wymanton on Friday, December 15, 2023

The Mongol Empire, which existed during the 13th and 14th centuries CE, is known for being the largest contiguous land empire in history. At its height, the Mongol Empire stretched from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, covering large parts of Asia and Eastern Europe.

While the Mongols are often portrayed as an undifferentiated horde of nomads, the reality is that the Mongol Empire had a complex social structure. This structure supported the administration and expansion of their enormous empire as well as the Mongol way of life centered around nomadic pastoralism.

Mongol Yurt

The Khan and Nobility

At the top of the Mongol social pyramid sat the Khan, the emperor of the united Mongol tribes. The Khan held absolute authority over the empire and its people. Below the Khan were the Mongol nobility, consisting of his relatives and commanders. The nobility owned the largest herds and had the highest social status in the empire.

Genghis Khan established a meritocratic system, where nobility was not strictly hereditary. Loyal and talented commoners could be promoted to the nobility if they proved themselves in battle or administration. For example, the brilliant military strategist Subutai, who was originally a common herdsman, rose through the ranks to become one of Genghis Khan’s most trusted generals.

The Mongol nobility lived a nomadic lifestyle like most Mongols, but their gers (yurts) and possessions were far more lavish. They wore expensive silks and furs, ate hearty meals of meat and dairy products, and enjoyed kumis (fermented mare’s milk). They were exempt from taxes and only answered directly to the Khan.

Mongol Nobility

Soldiers and Conscripts

The engine that powered the Mongols’ devastating conquests was their large and disciplined army. All Mongol males aged 15 to 60 were liable for conscription during wartime. The Mongols had an exclusively cavalry-based army, with each soldier supplied with several horses to keep the army fast-moving. Hardened by the harsh steppe environment from childhood, the Mongol soldier was known for his stamina, archery skills, and survival abilities.

The professional core of the Mongol army consisted of elite cavalry guard units directly loyal to the Khan. Each guard unit contained 10,000 heavily armored cavalrymen called Kheshig who protected the Khan and acted as enforcers of his orders.

Conquered subjects also had to serve in the Mongol army. As the empire expanded exponentially, incorporating more people, the once homogeneous Mongol army took on an increasingly diverse character. Armies contained a mixture of Mongol, Turkic, Chinese, Persian and European conscripts. Conscripts from settled civilizations often provided specialized skills like siege warfare and technology that the nomadic Mongols lacked.

Mongol Soldier

Artisans, Merchants and Bureaucrats

As the Mongol Empire expanded into the developed civilizations of China, Persia, and Russia, the Mongols came to rely on an urban class of administrators, artisans, and merchants not traditionally part of Mongol society.

Artisans produced weapons, clothing and other goods for Mongol consumption, both sustaining the conqueror’s way of life and providing goods to trade. Merchants facilitated trade across the empire, made possible by the Pax Mongolica - the stability provided by Mongol governance. With trade routes secured by Mongol forces, goods and ideas flowed freely between distant parts of the realm.

Bureaucrats consisting of kidnapped scribes and scholars administered the Mongol Empire, collecting taxes, keeping census records, facilitating communications through their postal system called Örtöö, and governing cities and regions. As the Mongol rulers were still nomads focused on military expansion, bureaucrats handled day-to-day civil administration. Through their bureaucracy, the Mongols skillfully ruled their multiethnic empire according to their principle of meritocracy over ethnicity.

Mongol Merchant

Common Tribespeople

The average tribespeople made up the bulk of Mongol society. Primarily nomadic herders, they followed traditional seasonal routes with their gers and herds of horses, yaks, sheep, and goats. Both men and women tended to the livestock, making dairy products and meat that sustained the Mongol diet.

Families were patriarchal, with men responsible for the herds and military service while women managed the household. Though daily life could be harsh on the arid steppe, tribespeople enjoyed more freedom and relative equality compared to peasants in feudal societies. Loyalty to family and tribe was paramount in Mongol culture.

Within the common tribespeople existed subgroups like shamans, hunters and outcasts. Shamans held important religious authority as spiritual intermediaries. Hunters provided valuable game meat as supplement to herding. Outcasts including slaves, debtors and criminals occupied the fringes, performing unpaid laboring work or having no place in society.

Mongol Nomad

An Enduring Legacy

The sophistication of Mongol governance, commerce and international relations was remarkable considering the Empire originated among scattered nomadic tribes. What held this multiethnic empire together was not only military might, but also the Mongols’ advanced civil administration and meritocratic inclusive policies towards different cultures and religions. At its peak, the Pax Mongolica facilitated travel, trade and prosperity across much of the known world.

In China and Persia, the Mongols enabled increased economic growth through rebuilt infrastructure and eased trade barriers. Under Mongol patronage, China saw rapid development in textile production, finance, weapon innovations like rocketry, and grand public works like the Grand Canal. The Persian city of Tabriz became a leading cosmopolitan center of poetry, art and architecture.

The Mongol Empire left behind a legacy of cultural and economic vibrancy. Mongol administration greatly influenced statecraft in later Asian dynasties. Mongol siege warfare, religious tolerance policies and postal relays became adopted by later regimes. For better and for worse, the Mongol Empire shaped the course of Eurasian history forever.

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the main groups in Mongol society?

The main groups in Mongol society consisted of the nobility, soldiers, artisans/merchants/bureaucrats, and common tribespeople. The Khan was the supreme ruler supported by the nobility of commanders and royal family members. Soldiers and conscripts carried out the Khan’s conquests and guarded the borders. Bureaucrats, artisans, and merchants managed administration and commerce. Common tribespeople sustained the pastoral nomadic economy through herding and pasture management.

Why did commoners rise in status in Mongol society?

The Mongols instituted a meritocratic system where competence mattered above bloodlines. Common herders and soldiers could be promoted to the prestigious nobility and army divisions if they proved themselves loyal and talented, judged by their battlefield success or administrative skills. This fluid system rewarded ability over ethnicity or background.

How did the social structure enable administration across a multiethnic empire?

The Mongol’s diverse social structure consisting of different ethnic groups and occupations enabled them to manage their vast multiethnic Eurasian empire. The meritocratic nobility ensured competent generals and governors rose to authority across cultures. Bureaucrats provided administrative continuity even as khans perished. Shared military service helped unify different ethnicities under the Mongol ruler. Notably, Genghis Khan exempted religious leaders and teachers from taxes and service to keep ethnic groups content under Mongol rule.

What was the legacy of the Mongol social system?

The Mongols’ accomplishments revealed the capabilities of even supposedly “primitive” steppe nomads when governed as meritocratic, inclusive, innovative and disciplined groups instead of indiscriminate raiders. The Mongols left a legacy of tolerant governance, bureaucratic administration, and military organization that influenced statecraft across Asia and Eastern Europe. Their temporary Pax Mongolica also facilitated trade, prosperity and cultural flourishing across Eurasia.


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“Khan (Title).” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., Accessed 15 Dec. 2023.